Oregon labor gears up for high-stakes political battle

Associate Editor

When 350 delegates and guests came to Albany, Oregon, for the 48th annual convention of the Oregon AFL-CIO, it was with a sense of urgency. Oregon and the nation are in the worst economy since the Great Depression, by some measures. Jobs are hemorrhaging, especially in the manufacturing sector. And making matters worse, the union movement faces a uniquely hostile political climate in which the President of the United States is waging war against workers’ interests on every front.

By the end of the three-day convention, Oregon’s labor movement had picked its leadership for the next four years, voted a substantial increase in funding for political work, recommitted to organizing and united around a political platform that included tax reform, opposition to new trade agreements, and a commitment to found a new civil rights movement around right to organize.

Structural Shakeup

The AFL-CIO is the premiere coordinating body of America’s labor movement, representing some 13 million workers in 64 affiliated unions. It was formed nationally in 1955 when the skilled craftsworkers of the American Federation of Labor merged with the industry-wide unions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Most U.S. unions are affiliated with the AFL-CIO; the biggest exceptions are the 2.7 million member National Education Association, and the 520,000-member United Brotherhood of Carpenters, which withdrew from the AFL-CIO in 2001.

Alongside its national structure, headquartered in Washington, D.C., the AFL-CIO has state federations, like the Oregon AFL-CIO; local bodies known as central labor councils, such as the Northwest Oregon Labor Council; and industry-specific councils, such as building trades or metal trades councils.

Under an agreement known as the New Alliance, local chapters of AFL-CIO-affiliated unions are required to affiliate and pay dues to these state and local bodies. In turn, those bodies are to be more accountable to affiliates and are expected to show results.

In Oregon, the New Alliance has meant a surge in Oregon AFL-CIO membership to a record 147,000; local unions representing 38,000 workers have joined the fold, paying dues of 61 cents per month per member, and sending delegates to the convention. Only one major AFL-CIO union — the Teamsters — has yet to fully affiliate in Oregon. The New Alliance also meant restructuring of the Oregon AFL-CIO leadership.

Why Labor is Targeting Bush

The AFL-CIO’s biggest role is coordinating organized labor’s political efforts. The national AFL-CIO spent about $42 million on politics in the 2000 election cycle alone, and is expected to spend a greater amount in 2004.

Most of that will be used in the campaign to oust President George W. Bush. Bush was the target of repeated pounding throughout the Oregon AFL-CIO convention — “not because he’s a Republican or because he’s a mean guy,” said former Oregon AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Bob Baugh, “but because his policies are destroying the future for America’s workers.”

In the two-and-a-half years Bush has been in office, speakers pointed out, an average of 100,000 jobs a month have been lost; the United States has experienced the highest trade deficit in its history; worker retirement security has been devastated by a stock market crash and a wave of corporate bankruptcies; massive tax cuts for the rich have sped up the growing polarization of wealth; a recession has put state governments in their worst budget crisis in generations, putting police, firefighters, and school teachers on the chopping block; and a record federal government surplus became a record deficit that economists say is so ruinous it could harm the private lending markets and affect the government’s credit rating.

“The Bush Administration has become a job-degrading, job-destroying cabal,” declared Oregon AFL-CIO President Tim Nesbitt.

“There’s no one who has been worse for working people than Bush,” concurred national AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson. “Bush and his Administration absolutely hate the union movement.”

In one of the highlights of the convention, Chavez-Thompson gave her report of life in Bush-era Washington as a representative of labor.

She said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney called Bush after his inauguration in the hopes that the union movement might have some working relationship with the new Administration; it took the president two weeks to return Sweeney’s phone call, Chavez-Thompson said, and that was the last time the representative of America’s workers ever got an audience with the president.

In February 2003, Bush sent Labor Secretary Elaine Chao to the AFL-CIO Executive Council, with the intent, seemingly, to freshen the antagonism. Chao brought with her dossiers on the union leaders who would be present at the meeting, and when each in turn rose to ask a question of her, she pulled out a page with their picture on it and rattled off examples of wrongdoing in their unions.

“These are two small but significant pictures of what this Administration thinks of unions,” Chavez-Thompson said.

The real harm to workers is in the Administration’s policies. In two and a half years, the Bush Administration:

• Repealed ergonomics standards that were about to go into effect to protect America’s workers from repetitive motion injuries;

• Stripped 60,000 airport screeners of the right to have a union;

• Canceled federal project labor agreements;

• Announced the privatization of half of the federal workforce;

• Invoked the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act to side with management in a dispute with West Coast longshore workers;

• Busted the union for workers in the new Homeland Security Department, claiming that unions would be a threat to national security;

Now, the Administration is actively working to undo labor’s biggest historic victory — the 40-hour work week.

Given that record, Chavez-Thompson said, the labor movement has to look at getting Bush out of the White House as priority number one. “The 2004 election is the one that will make us or break us,” she declared.

Labor 2004: Politics Start in the Workplace

Oregon will be one of about a dozen “battleground states,” states whose electoral votes could go either way in the 2004 presidential race. In 2000, Democrat Al Gore won in Oregon by less than half a percent.

Thus, mobilizing the union movement will be critical to determining who gets Oregon’s seven electoral votes, said Patrick Green, Oregon AFL-CIO political campaign director. Green gave convention delegates the first glimpse of a “road map to victory” in 2004 that the state federation had been developing for months.

“When union members know Bush’s record, they oppose him,” Green said. Green cited polls that show just that — that the more union members know about Bush’s record, the less likely they are to support him. It follows then that the task of the labor movement is to educate members about the record ... and then get them to vote. The Oregon AFL-CIO’s goal will be to match 2000’s record union turnout — when union households cast 23.5 percent of the votes cast in Oregon despite making up just 20.5 percent of electorate.

To do that, the state federation will try to further improve the grass-roots strategy it developed in its “Labor 2000” and “Labor 2002” campaigns — including door-to-door canvassing, workplace contact, telephoning, and direct mail; and voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts aimed at union households. The hope is to recruit a Labor 2004 contact at every union local and every union worksite.

To fund the Labor 2004 campaign, delegates passed a one-time special assessment of $2 per union member, which is expected to raise nearly $300,000 by Sept. 30, 2004. Similar assessments funded the Labor 2000 and Labor 2002 campaigns.

Republicans are taking the union political threat seriously, Green said, and will be adopting their own grass-roots strategy for the first time, focused on beating unions on the ground.

Political Support Must Go Both Ways

More than ever, several speakers said, unions will need friends in political office, not just to defend workers interests in the political arena, but to help new workers win union representation.

Nesbitt said the AFL-CIO has begun asking candidates who seek labor’s endorsement to sign a pledge to support workers’ right to organize and challenge employers who interfere with that right. “If they want us to stand up for them in their elections, they can stand with us in our elections.

“Using our strength in numbers in electoral politics can help us rebuild our strength in numbers in our workplaces, which, in turn, enhances our strength in elections.”

Elected officials were plentiful at the convention, with a welcoming speech from the mayor of Albany, pep talks from U.S. Senator Ron Wyden and U.S. Representative Earl Blumenauer, visits from a half dozen state legislators, and a keynote address from Congressman Peter DeFazio at an opening night fundraising dinner.

Unhappy With the Governor

Governor Ted Kulongoski was also invited to address the convention; in his stead he sent his labor liaison, Margaret Hallock, who reported on his accomplishments in the first biennium. Those included: switching production of Oregon license plates to a union shop in Oregon; a first contract for 14,000 home care workers; and an order that state agency managers will remain neutral in union organizing campaigns. When Hallock was through, AFSCME Executive Director Ken Allen walked up to a floor microphone to respond.

“We worked very hard to elect the governor, and the governor made many commitments to us during the campaign,” Allen said. “We’re not happy with what the governor’s performance has been.” Allen said public workers felt a sense of betrayal when the governor led the charge to cut public employee pension benefits and freeze wages — even step increases, which had never been done before in Oregon. “He’s going to have to step up to the plate for state workers and public employees before he comes back to us in the next election cycle.”

Allen’s reaction, which drew a standing ovation from public worker delegates, was then echoed by SEIU Local 503 Vice President Linda DeLucia: “We are deeply, deeply disappointed in Ted Kulongoski,” DeLucia said. “He has fixed the state government on our backs. ‘Thanks’ from the governor is not good enough.”

AFL-CIO Sets Policy

The convention was a chance to give formal endorsement to proposals worked out by the Oregon AFL-CIO’s various policy committees. Altogether, 21 resolutions were passed, most by unanimous or near-unanimous vote.

Those included:
• A plan to begin tallying the labor records of Oregon hospitals, seen as the first step on the way to increased use of the financial clout of labor-led health trusts;

• Support for an end to criminal penalties for clerks who unintentionally sell alcohol to minors;

• Opposition to the Free Trade Area of the Americas, a NAFTA-like trade treaty covering Western Hemisphere;

• Support for a state law requiring all employers with more than 50 employees to provide health insurance; and

• Support for the Oregon Legislature’s budget-balancing revenue package, which Nesbitt called “the only solution we have at hand to keep our school doors open and our jail doors closed for the next two years.” The tax package is now the target of a referendum for repeal by anti-government activists who are collecting signatures to place it on the November ballot.

On one proposal, however, opposition was expected, and it came. Tax reform in Oregon has long been a priority of the Oregon AFL-CIO. Nesbitt hoped to unify labor around a set of principles so that the Oregon AFL-CIO could take be at the table in discussions about solving the state’s ongoing revenue crises with a fairer system of taxation.

Some of the proposed principles got wide support:
• Opposing shifting the tax burden to working families;

• Opposing further reductions in revenues needed to support schools, human services or public safety;

• Making corporations pay at least the same income tax rate that individuals now pay;

• Limiting corporate income tax breaks; and

• Establishing a statewide property tax on commercial and industrial property.

But a proposal to consider a sales tax as part of a tax reform package prompted lengthy debate. Nesbitt made it clear that the Oregon AFL-CIO would not support a sales tax as a stand-alone measure, but wanted to know if it would be acceptable as part of a package that shifted taxes away from working people in other areas, so that it had no adverse effect.

Opponents, including delegates from UFCW and the Machinists unions, argued that a sales tax is by definition regressive, could go up in future years, and would tarnish labor by associating it with an unpopular cause. The tax policy proposal passed on a roll-call vote of 58,755 to 51,770.

“It was a good debate,” Nesbitt said. “It’s probably a good indicator of how hard it is to overcome the negatives associated with a sales tax. It allows us to say to those that are glib about a sales tax how much they would have to give up in income and property tax relief to get even a slim majority of organized labor’s support.”

Organizing: Slowed to a Standstill

Union organizer Jeannie Carpenter of Communication Workers of America Local 7901 gave delegates a sobering report on the progress of the ambitious organizing goals announced by the Oregon AFL-CIO two years prior.

Notwithstanding calls for unions to devote greater resources to new organizing, the pace of organizing actually slowed in the last year, with Oregon unions organizing less than 1,800 workers from June 2002 to May 2003. Given workforce growth and layoffs by unionized employers, newly organized workers didn’t begin to reverse the decline in union density. From 2001 to 2002, Oregon’s total union membership declined from 229,000 to 227,000 — from 15.6 to 15.5 percent of the workforce.

Carpenter said a budget shortfall last year prevented the Oregon AFL-CIO from following through on its plan to hire a full-time organizing coordinator. And unions maintained, but did not increase, the level of support for organizing in future years.

Carpenter urged unions to use organizing resources strategically, by organizing the labor movement’s natural constituencies: low-wage workers, public-sector workers and workers in sectors where union density is already high — health care, construction, utilities, transportation, manufacturing, and grocery. Increasing density in already organized sectors, Carpenter said, not only adds members but strengthens the bargaining position of existing members.

The right to organize. Nesbitt: “If we can regain the right to organize freely, we can restore our strength at the bargaining table and reclaim our rightful share of the wealth we produce with our labor.”

Threats to Labor Outlined

A sizable part of the proceedings was education; a chance to educate over 300 leaders of the Oregon labor movement about multiple and related threats to the labor movement.

And so Bob Baugh, a three-term former secretary-treasurer of the Oregon AFL-CIO, now with the revitalized Industrial Union Council of the national AFL-CIO, spoke about the astonishingly rapid decline of American manufacturing.

Portland State University professor Barbara Dudley, former assistant director of the AFL-CIO Department of Public Policy, described the threat posed to American workers by the proliferation of NAFTA-like trade agreements.

UFCW business rep Jeff Anderson exposed Wal-Mart as the ultimate anti-union mega-corporation and America’s biggest importer of Chinese-manufactured goods.

National AFL-CIO organizing director Stewart Acuff outlined the erosion of workers’ basic union rights, and suggested that America will need a new movement along the lines of the civil rights movement to win back the right to organize.

And AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Chavez-Thompson brought some delegates to tears with a story about the personal costs of living life in the service of fellow union members.

Labor must organize in the public sector and service sector, Baugh said, but it can’t ignore manufacturing. Not only must it continue to organize manufacturing, but it must demand a national industrial policy and find some way to protect American industries.

U.S. manufacturing peaked in 1979 at 21 million jobs. There was some manufacturing growth in the 1990s but it ended with the decade. Last month was the 37th month in a row of manufacturing job loss — longer than any time since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

An economy that loses its roots in manufacturing is destined for history’s scrap heap, Baugh said. “A great nation will not survive unless in can make and do things.”

In part, that’s because all other sectors of the economy depend on manufacturing. Because of technological and other improvements, productivity growth has always been high in manufacturing, much higher than in the service sectors. [In the 1990s, manufacturing experienced average productivity growth of 3.51 percent a year, compared to 0.71 percent a year in the non-manufacturing sector.] Productivity growth means that each year, the same number of workers can produce more goods. That’s one of the key bases for increasing prosperity, and it’s what allows unions to negotiate higher wages over a long period of time.

To stop the bleeding of American manufacturing, Baugh proposed a no-nonsense agenda: Freeze new trade deals until the trade deficit is eliminated; stop encouraging outsourcing; institute national health insurance; buy American those things that are necessary for national security; and win back workers’ rights to organize.

In the new world economy, American factory workers aren’t the only ones losing out, said Barbara Dudley: Now even Mexican workers are losing jobs to China.

“The race to the bottom is almost over,” Dudley told delegates. “It has hit the poorest countries.”

But, echoing Baugh’s maxim “analysis cures paralysis,” Dudley cautioned against hopelessness: “We are not stuck with these trade agreements. Congress has the power to change these trade agreements.”

Dudley called on Oregon unionists to support shutting down a November 20-21 meeting in Miami when trade ministers with gather to discuss a NAFTA for the Western Hemisphere.

The struggle starts at home, Nesbitt said. “I believe this is a moment in our history when even a small state like ours, led by a strong labor movement, can help take back our country from the greatest threat to our unions and the well-being of our workers since the dark days of the Great Depression before the Administration of FDR,” Nesbitt said. “It is becoming more and more clear that, in our working lifetimes, there will be no middle ground. Either our labor movement will get stronger and thrive, or we will weaken and fade away.”

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